2012-2013

Richard Whitcomb ’43 Inducted National Aviation Hall of Fame

The Whitcomb area rule, the supercritical wing, and winglets changed supersonic flight, modern jetliners and aircraft of all kinds, and are attributed to Richard T. Whitcomb, who was posthumously inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame Saturday, Oct. 6.

The Whitcomb area rule, the supercritical wing, and winglets changed supersonic flight, modern jetliners and aircraft of all kinds, and are attributed to Richard T. Whitcomb, who was posthumously inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame Saturday, Oct. 6. Whitcomb died in 2009 at the age of 88 after a 37-year career at NASA's Langley Research Center. Lesa Roe, director of the center, said of Whitcomb, "His practical solutions led to three of the most significant and practical contributions to aeronautics in the 20th century." Whitcomb's application of the area rule earned him the Collier Trophy in 1954 and has been applied to nearly every U.S. supersonic aircraft ever designed, according to NASA. The latest honor adds to a long list bestowed on Whitcomb while he was still alive.

Whitcomb received the Exceptional Service medal from the U.S. Air Force in 1955, the Distinguished Service Medal in 1956 from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and NASA's Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal in 1959. He won the National Aeronautics Association Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy in 1974 and was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering in 1976 and the National Inventors' Hall of Fame in 2003.  

Whitcomb bequeathed his lifetime awards to WPI, with the stipulation that they be displayed along with items belonging to Robert Goddard, WPI Class of 1908 and the father of modern rocketry. The day before his induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, WPI dedicated an Innovators Exhibit in the Gordon Library, where Whitcomb’s medals and achievements are displayed alongside those of Goddard and other notable WPI innovators, such as Howard Freeman ’40 whose fog nozzle saved thousands of lives on US Navy aircraft carriers during World War II.  

The area rule was made famous by the Convair F-102 Delta Dagger's pinched fuselage and greatly reduced transonic drag on nearly every supersonic U.S. aircraft designed since.  It had been previously considered by German researchers as early as 1943. Whitcomb's supercritical wing delayed the onset of increased drag at near-supersonic speeds and was first applied to airliners in the 1960s. And the winglet further improved aerodynamic efficiencies on a wide range of aircraft from gliders to heavy jets.  

Ever a forward thinking, Whitcomb’s gift to WPI also included funds in excess of $2.5 million which he designated to “provide financial assistance for one or more professors in the Department of Chemistry and/or Biochemistry” whose “chosen area of expertise must involve the biochemistry of animals, including humans, but not plants.” He believed the important discoveries of this century will be made in the life sciences. In an article in the fall 2002 issue of WPI’s alumni magazine he said:  

“If I were to start today, I’d go into the life sciences—that’s where the big stuff is happening.”

October 15, 2012

 
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